Residents and town leaders are debating how a massive, multi-million-dollar renovation of Miami Lakes Optimist Park should be designed and funded.
It is a place with a unique history: Its creation 50 years ago as South Florida’s first school-park partnership, which serves everyone in the community, is a model which has been replicated throughout Miami-Dade County.
The Sengra Corporation (later The Graham Companies) which developed the town, donated 42 acres along Northwest 67th Avenue south of the Palmetto Expressway to the Dade Public School System in the early 1970s, The Graham Companies said.
Four separate entities partnered with the firm in the new concept: Dade County Parks and Recreation Department, the Dade Public School System, the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District and the state Department of Natural Resources.
The town’s master planner, Lester Collins, envisioned the park as a place for Miami Lakers to visit and play sports when school was not in session, the company said.
The design included a junior high school, marina, tennis courts, multipurpose courts, four baseball fields, a football field, general play area and a recreational building.
Construction began in 1971 and at the ground-breaking, Governor Reubin Askew and Dade County Mayor Steve Clark were honored for supporting the government-private industry development and called it an exemplary action for the common good.
When play began in 1973, the park became home to Optimist Club programs that continue today.
Sports figures who lived in town -- including Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula; Coach Howard Schnellenberger, Miami Dolphins Jim Mandich and Tony Nathan, and NFL Coach Bill Arnsparger -- watched their children play in Optimist programs.
Jackie Calzadilla, executive director of external communications for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said in addition to the Town of Miami Lakes, it has agreements with Miami-Dade County, Doral, Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Miami Gardens, Key Biscayne and Pinecrest for joint use of recreational facilities, whether located entirely on school sites, in parks or a combination of such properties.
The school board owns approximately 70 percent of the southernmost 20 acres of Optimist Park and the town owns the northern portion.
The latest deal
The town is negotiating a 40-year joint use agreement with the board that has options for two, 10-year renewals, for a total of 60 years, Town Manager Edward Pidermann said.
It would be rent-free for the town. The contract also allows the school district to request use of park space with a minimum 48 hours’ notice, Pidermann said.
“This clause has existed in the previous [agreement] and had little to no impact on park programming, as typically there is more notice given and we can plan accordingly,” he said.
Calzadilla said funding for park improvements will come entirely from the town.
Voters will have their say
In November 2022, voters may decide whether the town can sell bonds to pay for the improvements.
If approved, construction that could last a year could begin in early 2023.
During the Sept. 14 meeting, the council discussed design plans designated as Options 1 – 4 that cost from $5 million to $26.6 million.
Council debates costs
Features for Option 3 at approximately $18.7 million and Option 4 at $26.6 million are nearly identical but for the addition of a 10,000 square foot, $5.7 million building with a gym and meeting spaces.
New amenities would include a walking path and exercise stations, rebuilt tennis courts; covered basketball court; LED sports lights; 120 parking spaces; realigned ball fields with a central concession stand, restrooms and fountains; six batting cages; drainage and 250 trees.
The council dismissed Options 1 and 2 because parking wasn’t addressed. And they feared Option 4 was just too expensive, feedback that Vice Mayor Luis Collazo said he received from residents.
“What I’m trying to do is bring down the price tag so it’s as manageable as possible to have an opportunity to address that park,” Collazo said.
A majority eventually chose Option 3, with Mayor Manny Cid and Councilwoman Marilyn Ruano dissenting.
Cid was concerned that not choosing Option 4 would discourage several people who have come forward to propose public-private partnerships for the park, including for the multi-purpose building.
Such partnerships could potentially reduce costs to taxpayers.
Though Councilmen Carlos Alvarez and Jeff Rodriguez spoke about the need for an indoor facility that would allow people to remain active during South Florida’s often stormy weather, Councilman Tony Fernandez called the building “a want” rather than a need.
The footprint for the proposed multipurpose building will remain in the design plans if funding for it is eventually obtained.
Councilman Joshua Dieguez said estimated construction costs may be too low.
“I think we’re going to risk too much of the voters’ appetite on one park with a building that is not necessary for the park’s operation … ” Dieguez said.
After the meeting, Ruano said she couldn’t support Options 3 or 4.
“Our responsibility is to deliver a municipal park that members of the community can enjoy with friends and neighbors,” Ruano said. “I have no desire to create a sports complex for the northwest corridor of Miami-Dade County funded on the backs of Miami Lakes taxpayers.”
School district reviews park designs
Pidermann said school board staff and the town’s design team worked together on the location of the fields and open green space as shown in Options 3 and 4.
“The district reviewed the balance of the site plan and has no objection to the design,” Calzadilla said.
The council, with the exception of Ruano, also approved Pidermann’s request to spend up to $100,000 for legal research, a financial advisor and voter education before possibly going to the municipal bond markets.
Realtor Lynn Matos said she is very happy the town is moving forward with a plan.
“Well-maintained parks and green space attract residents and businesses to communities, including Miami Lakes, resulting in increased revenue and property values,” Matos told The Miami Laker. “My clients always inquire about parks and recreational areas and activities.”
To see designs go to: https://bit.ly/3sQhVfL.